Friday, October 14, 2016

Germany trip 2016, part 6: Hamburg Botanic Garden

Today we visited the Botanic Garden of Hamburg, Germany. Not, however, the old, well-known park Planten un Blomen, but the gardens at the second site in the suburb of Klein Flottbek. They are right next to the biological teaching and research centre (Biozentrum) of the Hamburg University.

The gardens are large and offer a huge diversity of sections, including steppe plants, crop plants, medical plants, regional sections representing everything from northern Germany to South America, and much more. A few examples:

The Bauerngarten, or farmer's garden. It features a nice selection of useful plants and ornamentals. There are also some old farming machines exhibited in a corner.

The garden designers show some humour in the Alpinum, the alpine section. Here is a sign as one would see it in the German Alps, reading in translation: Experience with the Alpine environment, a sure step, and a head for heights required. Signed, the German Alps Society.

A few metres on we find this Gipfelkreuz, as one would usually see on the summit of a large mountain (in overly Christian countries, that is). The background shows what dizzying heights the intrepid Alpine hiker will have braved at this point.

While on the topic of crosses, the weirdest part of the botanic gardens might be the Bibelgarten, which consists of plants mentioned in the holy book of one particular religion and signage listing the relevant bible verses. Let's just say that Germany is not the most secular country on the planet and move on.

Much nicer is the Asian section. Not only is it very well landscaped and features beautiful plants... also includes a Japanese rock garden. Despite a slightly confusing sign that seems to forbid it visitors are invited to walk across the larger rocks and the platform but obviously shouldn't step onto the pebble patterns.

Finally, the systematic section. Despite being very new its explanatory signage suffers a bit from scala naturae thinking (e.g. ginkgoes are described as the "oldest" gymnosperms). It is, however, an unusually well landscaped systematic section; this kind of display is all too often built as a simple, linear row of flowerbeds.

The garden does not have an entry fee. Unfortunately the visitor shop is only open on weekends.

Before seeing the gardens I was also able to pay a visit to the Hamburg Herbarium (HBG) and to study some specimens two levels below the ground. The herbarium is huge - I was told 1.8 million specimens -, and the vaults are accordingly large and were in fact something of a maze to me. One factor may be that, as the picture shows, the specimens are not stored in compactus units. I am grateful that I was able to examine a species I could not lay my hands on in Australia, so all in all a great day today.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fitzpatricks War

So I have just finished Theodore Judson's Fitzpatrick's War, a book I mentioned having bought a few weeks ago and that I took onto the holiday trip. It was very well written and deserves its accolades, but I also found it profoundly disturbing. Which is why I am writing about it. Be warned of SPOILERS ahead.

The book describes a 25th century, steampunk future from the perspective of an army engineer. To summarise the setting, after the collapse of our current civilisation the world has largely recovered with slightly changed political boundaries. The Anglo-Saxon realm is called Yukons and is now fundamentalist Christian and quasi-feudal. Latin America and Africa are more or less the same as now, as is China only it is painted as fanatically communist and rules all of East and Southeast Asia. Moslems have conquered and converted continental Europe except Russia, now called Slavic Remnant.

Technology has advanced in chemistry (polymers and explosives), medicine (Yukons regularly live beyond 100 years) and biology (GMOs galore) but has to make do without any electricity, as the Yukons are running a satellite network that disrupts electric currents across all the planet (including nearly all of their own realm). This means no computers, no wind or solar power; machines are all steam-driven and run on biofuels.

The story has three main topics:

First, how basically decent people end up committing atrocities. We see the protagonist supporting everything from political assassination to genocide first because he does not want to risk his career, then because he is afraid of being punished, and finally because he is afraid of putting his loved ones in harm's way. Those are plausible motives, and so at every step it remains believable that he is, individually, a good person.

Second, it explores how a small nation (the Yukons number only 30 million) could militarily dominate a world of several billion people if they had a sufficient technological edge, the satellite network mentioned above.

Third, it explores how a small conspiracy could manipulate events so that their favoured nation (the Yukons, duh) remains (a) militarily dominant and (b) locked in feudal stasis for centuries, so as never to become "decadent", while (c) knocking all other peoples of the globe down periodically with the long term end goal, at least as stated by the agent of that conspiracy, of genociding them all to the degree that they are reduced to a smattering of "cavemen".

I believe that the book shines in the first of these themes. The other two are a bit more difficult. This is not even because those are the parts that disturbed me, per se. The war atrocities are deliberately described in a voyeuristic and graphic manner, yes, but they are meant to unsettle and challenge the reader, so this quite simply excellent writing.

The problem is really that I do not consider those two remotely plausible as described in the book - it is a question of being unable to maintain willing suspension of disbelief. Not just because of one detail either, there is a whole list of issues sticking out:

It seems hugely impossible that a nation of 30 million could militarily and economically dominate the world described in the book. Let's assume, for the same of simplicity, that Yukons can work from 15 to 90 years of age, and that they die at 100. That means 75% of their population, or 22.5 million, are working age. The book repeatedly states that two thirds of them are farmers, leaving 7.5 million to produce and maintain an army, navy, and air force that cannot only effortlessly trounce what one billion Chinese throw at them but also maintain a technological edge. On top of that, those 7.5 million will of course have to do all the peacetime manufacturing, education, trade, construction, repairs, arts, and research for the Yukons, all while frozen at a quasi-feudal social structure where factories of more than 120 workers are explicitly stated to be forbidden. Oh, and of course women in Yukon society are limited to being teachers, authors, maidservants or housewives, so we are really talking about 3.75 million people doing all the rest.

The problem is of course that the author could not have made the setting more plausible by increasing the Yukon population tenfold, because clearly then we would not be looking at a plausible feudalism any more.

The conspiracy mentioned above maintains its grip on world events over centuries without suffering infighting, corruption, defection, espionage, serious conflicts with the government, mission creep, or just plain mistakes. This means that whatever we are talking about we are not talking about a setting inhabited by believable human beings. Which is doubly jarring given how believably the people outside of that conspiracy are written.

The conspiracy can also apparently maintain a space program and a satellite network with what seems like a few hundred (maybe at most a few thousand) members and whatever resources it can divert from the aforementioned minuscule, non-electrified agricultural society. All from one Pacific island. Right.

GMO microbes are said to be able to remove salt from the soil. The individual elements making up salt are very reactive, and salt is very inert. The upshot is that it is energetically very expensive to turn salt into something else. I am not a chemist, but as a biologist my hunch is that this is hardly possible. (What might work would be plants that draw salt from the soil and store it so that it can be carted away in their bodies.)

GMO locusts are said to be able to eat every single piece of plant material, apparently without being poisoned by any of those plant species, and are apparently not eaten by humans or other animals, or otherwise fought by a highly organised, populous nation. And apparently one facility in North America, which we should note again is a small agricultural society, can produce enough of them to defoliate all of China. I do not want to minimise the severity of past locust epidemics, but this seems hugely implausible.

All in all the author appears to believe, or at least pretend for the purposes of the story, that GMOs are magic and can achieve anything. Wikipedia tells me that he has written another Science Fiction book in which metal-eating microorganisms are a major plot point, as they destroy all modern technology. If that were energetically possible it would probably have evolved by now, like those nylon eating bacteria did, but even then it would have to be chemoautotrophic and thus grow at such a slow pace that it would we much less of an issue than rust or sunlight.

Similar surprises are in store from chemistry. Not only do the Yukons conveniently have incendiary weapons that can turn a whole square kilometre into "glass", they also even more conveniently have a polymer to spray on all their equipment that neutralises such a super-weapon if used against them. I am reasonably sure that if one is physically possible then the other cannot be. I am not writing all of this because I cannot enjoy reading a book with magic in it, but because it torpedoes any value one might get out of speculating about whether such technological superiority is realistic. Seems as if it isn't if magic has to be involved.

There are also simple internal contradictions. The official Yukon war goal is to get enemy nations to sign the Four Points: Scrapping their air forces; scrapping their war navies, free trade access for Yukon ships, and an annual tribute of 10% of their gross national products. The unofficial war goal of the Yukon leader is to amalgamate all cultures of the world into a single harmonious global culture. The war is conducted by first defeating the Chinese militarily and then, after they have been neutralised as a threat, killing off virtually the entire Chinese population. It should be obvious that doing that is counter-productive to the two last points in the official war goals as well as to the unofficial goal; one cannot trade with, raise tribute from, or culturally unite a mass grave. So obvious indeed that the Yukon leader would not plausibly have gone forward with the genocide. And yes, it is clearly his own initiative and not done behind his back by the conspiracy.

This is before mentioning that the treatment of the genocide is rather self-contradictory across the book. The reader is first shocked with graphic descriptions indicating that China is virtually depopulated, with only a few ragged, sick and starving people left here or there, who will presumably also die over the next few years or at best form the nucleus of scattered villages that have reverted to the late stone age. There is talk of hundreds of millions having died, after it has been established that hundreds of millions is the starting population of that country. The epilogue then talks of the Chinese government, travel through China, a nature reserve being set up with the help of said government, and even a Chinese naturalist. Those two descriptions do not make sense in the same book.

Finally, a minor plot point raised in support of the idea that the conspiracy could work successfully over the centuries is that the commoners of the Yukon nation are happy to accept patriotic lies and feel no shame about what they are doing to the rest of the world. A major plot point in the downfall of the megalomaniac Yukon leader is that (in contrast to the decadent nobles) all the commoners are utterly disgusted by the war atrocities that happen during the story. This is either a major case of wanting to have it both ways or a subtle pointer that we should not believe the conspiracy operative when he brags about their invincibility. It does not seem to me, however, that the latter interpretation fits the rest of novel.

After having exorcised all this, I have to state again that the novel is seriously well written as far as the characters are concerned. A particularly nice touch is the framing of the story as an autobiography annotated by a loyalist historian who considers the protagonist to be a liar. The historian's footnotes lighten up the otherwise at times depressing reading experience. So despite my above misgivings I enjoyed reading it, can recommend it, and may try out other novels by the same author.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Germany trip 2016, part 5: tropical crop plants

Today we visited the Universität Kassel Gewächshaus für tropische Nutzpflanzen (greenhouse for tropical crop plants) in Witzenhausen.

It is really a large complex of several connected glasshouses, featuring anything from fruit trees to grains, from dye plants to medical herbs. It also has an outside garden, but we did not take the time to visit that part.

The cocoa plants (Theobroma cacao) were flowering profusely, but also had a few fruits in varying stages of maturity. As most readers who find this will likely know, the flowers are produced on the trunk of the trees.

Near the entrance of the complex is a huge gourd collection. At any rate, if you are botanically interested and find yourself in the vicinity of Witzenhausen, Germany, you may want to drop by. Opening times are rather restricted though.

The agricultural faculty building is largely a former monastery and accordingly old architecture. It has a distinctly ivy league atmosphere, although given the identity of plants covering the façade I should perhaps write Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus, Vitaceae) league.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Germany trip 2016, part 4: Göttingen

I studied biology and obtained my doctorate at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, but I had not visited the town in quite a few years.

The Gänseliesel fountain is probably the most iconic landmark of Göttingen. For many decades graduating Ph.D. students have said goodbye to their university by climbing up to the statue, attaching a bouquet of flowers to her, and kissing her. I did so about eleven years ago. When the tradition started, the town government tried to outlaw it, but today pictures of students kissing the Gänseliesel are shown prominently on tourist brochures.

Part of the botanical collection of the university, with the official herbarium acronym GOET. I visited to examine some specimens.

Afterwards I rejoined my family, and we strolled through the garden. Göttingen is blessed with three botanical gardens:

The Alter Botanischer Garten is in the town centre and features various glasshouses, e.g. fern house, orangerie, succulent house, carnivorous plant and cacti house, cycad house and tropical rainforest house.

It serves mainly public education, teaching and, with the outside areas shown above, as a city park. But it also assisted my research when I did my postgraduate work.

The Experimenteller Botanischer Garten (a.k.a. Neuer Botanischer Garten) was built in the northern part of the city in 1967. With larger grounds but less greenhouses it primarily serves ecological research and teaching, e.g. by growing plants for identification courses, but also has its public education angle.

Finally, the Forstbotanischer Garten is an arboretum on a hill just east of the town. It is large, and when I last saw it parts of it were still undeveloped. Obviously it is largely a tree collection with a few flowerbeds under them. On good days it offers great views over the town.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Germany trip 2016, part 3: Burg Hanstein

The trip today was to a castle ruin called Burg Hanstein and the nearby forest.

Burg Hanstein from the distance. The nice Fachwerk houses and a church complete the Medieval atmosphere of the village.

In the courtyard of the castle. Two cellars are accessible, as is the tallest tower which offers a very nice view in all directions. The great hall has been restored and can apparently be booked for events.

The botany angle here is this little busily sporulating fern, Asplenium ruta-muraria (Aspleniaceae). Again, nothing rare or special, indeed probably the most common wall-inhabiting fern in Germany, but isn't it cute?

We then walked through the forest following this track that was used by GDR troops to patrol the former border between East and West.

The village of Lindewerra, here seen from the Teufelskanzel lookout that was the turning point of our walk, was on the GDR side, and the river was the border.

A picturesque pine tree on the escarpment near the Teufelskanzel. Mostly, however, the forest consisted of beech (Fagus sylvatica) and oak trees that were raining their leaves and acorns down on us, as it was very windy.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Germany trip 2016, part 2: Kassel

Today we visited the city of Kassel, specifically the Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, a large park to the west of the city. It features magnificent trees, the palace Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, a statue called Herkules (?), and a series of ornamental lakes, creeks and waterfalls between the latter two.

The Schloss, built for the rulers of Hessen-Kassel and today a museum.

View from the hill below the Herkules statue back down across the Schloss and over the city of Kassel. Unfortunately Kassel is one of those cities that were industrially relevant and large enough to be bombed out during WW2, leaving very few of its original buildings standing.

One of the main attractions of the park are the Wasserspiele, or "water features" as a sign translated them, which take place three times per week. When we arrived at the place where they were to start we were surprised at the masses of people who had come, given that it was the middle of the week and not holiday time. I don't want to see what it is like on a Sunday.

The Wasserspiele finish with a huge fountain on the lowest lake. When the wind turned people ran away shrieking as they suddenly found themselves in the drizzle.

Of course we cannot have a post without something botanical. Admittedly this is one of the ugliest thistles I know, but then again Cirsium oleraceum (Asteraceae) at least has an unusual flower colour. At any rate I do not care so much about aesthetics right now; I am more in a "hey, I haven't seen that species in so many years" mind-space, given how rarely I come back to Europe.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Botany picture #236: Hedera helix

Today we went for a nice long walk through the forest near Witzenhausen. There is still more in flower than I expected at this time of the year. For example, ivy (Hedera helix, Araliaceae) is blooming all over the place, and very popular with honeybees.